Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
Matisse painted this sensitive and alluring portrait of Lydia Delectorskaya, the young Russian woman who had recently become his studio assistant and favorite model (fig. 1), in a richly resonant tonality of dark blue and green, contrasted with violet and red, and heightened with warm flesh tints in her head and hands. Comparison with a painting done less than two years later, also featuring Lydia in a harmonie bleue (fig. 2), clearly reveals the degree to which this portrait stakes out a different territory within the pictorial realm of Matisse's Nice period. This is not the make-believe Orientalist world of the odalisques, and the model here is not arrayed in costume-like garb that made its way to Nice from some Middle Eastern or North African bazaar. She is instead dressed in a stylish little hat and an elegant cloak surmounted with a fur stole, and adorned with a four-string pearl necklace and wristlets, the contemporary and fashionable raiment of a well-to-do and absolutely modern woman. She might have stepped out on the street in any European or American metropolis, been pictured in the pages of the latest issue of a fashion journal, or appeared on screen in a popular motion picture of the period (fig. 3).
There is, consequently, in fair Lydia's presence and mien, more an expression of sensibility than sensuality, and certainly more reality than reverie. Although her pose is casual and unstudied, and her charm comes across in a most direct and appealing manner, Matisse has imbued this young woman with an air of seriousness, individuality and personal dignity, qualities which the painter has carefully underscored in his choice of deep-toned color relations. This twilight harmony may be regarded in marked contrast to the higher-keyed and airier treatment, the noonday Mediterranean light, which typically suffuses the artist's harem interiors and were intended to induce a state of retinal titillation, to better suggest a heady ambience of dreamy exoticism. While Lydia is no less engaged here in a form of role-playing than she would be in the later odalisque painting--she has been arrayed in finery that she would not have otherwise been able to afford or wear in public--the focus of the artist's gaze is a real person, and not merely a characterless model whose presence has been subsumed within a staged Orientalist environment. Matisse has here described Lydia with respect and growing affection, and her portrait yields a measure of insight into personal character and feeling that subtly overlays and enhances the artist's customary priorities in formal and chromatic invention.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that Matisse did not name Lydia in his title for this portrait, perhaps simply because he had not known her for very long, and it might be a while before she would become as familiar and dear to him as some of her predecessors, such as Antoinette Arnoud or Henriette Darricarrère. Moreover, the artist's primary purpose here is to establish her as an attractive exemplar of modern womanhood, which would require that she assume some degree of anonymity. Her contemporary aspect is in fact the signal theme of the picture. If in his odalisques Matisse liked to imagine a world set largely within the painterly convention created a century earlier by Ingres and Delacroix, and subsequently practiced by Renoir as well, in Lydia's portrait he dispenses with all of these trappings and instead heeds the poet Charles Baudelaire's clarion call to be a painter of modern life. Baudelaire published his seminal essay Le peintre de la vie moderne in late 1863. His observations and advice irrevocably shaped progressively minded art from Manet onwards. Keep in mind that during the 1920s, when Picasso had been busy creating a classicized pastiche of Greco-Roman style and subjects to serve as an enticing alternative to the rigors of early modernism, and when Matisse had created his own fantasy world in a rapturous daydream of the Orientalist seraglio, being a painter of modern life was not the essential imperative and ultimate goal it had been during previous decades. To engage modern life and style now required a renewed will and the making of deliberate choices. As it turned out, Baudelaire's advice was timelessly relevant. Most importantly, he had set down a powerful, even mythic view of femininity for modern times, one that was still deeply engrained in contemporary consciousness nearly a century later. Baudelaire wrote:
"Woman, for the artist in general... is far more than just the female of Man. Rather she is a divinity, a star, which presides at all the conceptions of the brain of man; a glittering conglomeration of all the graces of nature, condensed into a single being; the object of the keenest admiration and curiosity that the picture of life can offer its contemplator...Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural; she has to astonish and charm us; as an idol, she is obliged to adorn herself in order to be adored. Thus she has to lay all the arts under contribution for the means of lifting herself above Nature, the better to conquer hearts and rivet attention."
Fashion and style, Baudelaire believed, were inherent and inseparable aspects of the feminine persona:
"Everything that adorns women, everything that serves to show off her beauty, is part of herself; and those artists who have made a particular study of this enigmatic being dote no less on all the details of the mundus muliebris than on Woman herself... What poet, in sitting down to paint the pleasure caused by the sight of a beautiful woman, would venture to separate her from her costume? Where is the man who, in the street, at the theatre, or in the park, has not in the most disinterested of ways enjoyed a skillfully composed toilette, and has not taken away with him a picture of it which is inseparable from the beauty of her to whom it belonged, making thus of the two things--the woman and her dress--an indivisible unity?" (both passages from J. Mayne, ed. and trans., Charles Baudelaire: The Painter of Modern Life and other Essays, London 1995, pp. 30-31 and 33).
Baudelaire had indeed been on Matisse's mind. In 1932, when the artist sat down to illustrate the Poésies of Stéphane Mallarmé, the leader of the Symbolists who had inherited Baudelaire's mantle and was likewise a keen and fascinated observer of contemporary feminine style, he etched a portrait of Baudelaire to accompany the poet's Le Tombeau de Baudelaire. John Klein has noted Baudelaire's influence on Matisse's attitude toward women and fashion: "Here we see Baudelaire, who formulated so many of the premises of modernity for subsequent generations, setting out the terms of engagement that Matisse followed in his portraits of women--terms that led to the eclipse of the individual, leaving free signifiers of femininity, portraiture, and social position unattached to any individual to whom the artist would feel obliged to show some personal or social responsibility" (in Matisse Portraits, New Haven, 2001, p. 233).
Matisse had done little easel painting from late 1929 into 1934. He had been preoccupied during this period with other projects and a good deal of travel. Following a layover in New York during early February 1930, his first visit there, he crossed the United States and then boarded ship for Tahiti, where he stayed from late March to mid-June. Following his return to France he sailed again that fall to America, where he participated on the jury for the Carnegie Institute International Exhibition. He met with Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who commissioned a mural for the central gallery of his museum in Merion, Pennsylvania, and returned again in December 1930 to inspect the site. This large decorative composition became La Danse, which Matisse worked on in a large, temporary studio in Nice for the next year-and-a-half. He painted two versions, the second becoming necessary when he discovered an error in the dimensions of the first. He sailed to New York again in May 1933, his final visit to America, when he accompanied the completed mural to its destination and supervised its installation.
Matisse was further occupied with an important series of four retrospective exhibitions, in Berlin, Paris, Basel and New York, which gave him pause to consider his achievement thus far. The trip to Tahiti, the occasion of the retrospectives and his work on the Barnes mural appeared to him to mark the end of one phase of his life and the beginning of another. He explained to Tériade, "When you have worked a long time in the same milieu, it is useful at a given moment to stop and take a voyage which will let parts of the mind rest while other parts have free rein--especially those parts repressed by the will. This stopping permits a withdrawal and consequently an examination of the past. You begin again with more certainty..." (quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 88).
Matisse had engaged Lydia Delectorskaya in October 1932 to help him in his studio while he was working on La Danse. Lydia described her background at the beginning of her invaluable chronicle of this period, With Apparent Ease...:
"The only daughter of a physician, I was born in Tomsk (a Central Siberian city). As a result of, first, a typhoid and, secondly, a cholera epidemic which raged throughout Siberia in the early twenties, I lost both parents in 1922. One year later, the aunt who had taken me in, took me along when she left with her children for Manchuria. As soon as I finished my studies in one of the Russian high schools in Harbin, I was transplanted to France, again by force of circumstances. But there I became an émigrée and besides, one without any knowledge of the French language (English was taught in the Far East). At 19, in Paris, I married a Russian émigré, a confirmed bachelor, but by 20 I had already left him. And that is all" (op. cit., pp. 13-14).
Upon the completion of La Danse in early 1933, Matisse no longer needed Lydia's services. His wife Amélie had been ailing, however, and in October 1934, when a young girl who had been attending to her had to depart, the artist remembered the pleasant young Russian woman, and asked Lydia to help out as Amélie's daily companion. The Matisses gave her room and board in their household. Although Lydia had modeled in several artists' studios, and Matisse had done a few sketches of her, it was nearly a year before he appeared to take any interest in her as a subject for his work. Lydia recalled, "I was not 'his type.' With the exception of his daughter, most of the models who had inspired him, were southern types. But I was a blonde, very blonde.
It was probably for this reason that when something about me had caught his eye, he had been studying me with a meditative, dour look. Then, one day, he sat down with a sketchbook under his arm and, while I was scarcely paying attention to the conversation, suddenly spoke to me, 'Don't move!' And opening the sketchbook he drew me in my favorite pose--head down on my arms..." (ibid., p. 16).
This drawing became the inspiration for Les yeux bleus, which Matisse painted in late February to March, 1935 (fig. 4). It is one of the pictures that marked Matisse's return to easel painting following the completion of the Barnes mural. Hillary Spurling has noted, "This first painting of Lydia in her favourite pose, The Blue Eyes, was the signal he had been waiting for. Matisse looked back on it later as the first shot in an experimental campaign... It initiated a period of intense and sustained activity that gathered momentum over the next few months" (in Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, Volume Two, New York, 2005, p. 355). The famous Le rêve, utilizing a related pose, this time with the model nude, followed in April to mid-May. Mme Monod-Fontaine has written:
"Contrary to the first years in Nice (1920-1929), emotionally tied to well-determined models and particularly to Henriette and his own daughter Marguerite, the painting of the years preceding the arrival of Lydia moves away from the model, from the individual live figure: according to Matisse's own words, he is as the time in search of 'an architectural style in painting in which the human element apparently must be tempered, if not excluded,' which he realized in his great composition for Merion [La Danse]. But with Lydia, from the beginning of 1935, this privileged even, for some time, exclusive, triangular relationship of painter, model and painting will be renewed..." (intro., L. Delectorskaya, op. cit., pp. 7-8).
Lydia then posed for Matisse's great masterwork of the mid-thirties, Grand nu couché (Nu rose), which occupied the artist from late April to the end of October (fig. 5). The figure of the nude consists of a series of arching, serpentine arabesques, set off against grid-like decorative patterns. A floral still-life has also been reduced to a few simple outlined shapes. As he had recently done while developing the forms of the dancers in the Barnes mural, Matisse pinned cut-out paper shapes to the canvas to make alterations in the shape and positioning of the nude. This procedure helped him to visualize both figure and ground as distinct and flat color zones separated by clear contours. The use of cut papers first served as a preparatory tool, but soon evolved into the artist's first independent cut-outs. Having evolved from numerous stages, the end result represented a new pictorial reality, in which color and form were one. John Elderfield has written, "Paintings like the Pink Nude united the resimplified drawing and primal grandeur, achieved in that synthesis, with an observed, interior-situated subject... Combining these two forms had been difficult, but it had been achieved by giving layout or composition new prominence, playing off image and ground until they exactly balanced, joining drawing and colour as one" (in The Drawings of Henri Matisse, exh. cat., Arts Council of Great Britain, 1984, pp.113).
In late 1935, following the completion of Nu rose, Matisse executed a series of pen and ink drawings of a nude model reclining in a studio setting (fig. 6), for which Lydia had posed, in which he perfected the purity and purpose of his line drawing in a wholly integrated manner. Elderfield has claimed that "They are among the greatest achievements in his draughtsmanship. Some of the individual sheets are breathtaking in their assurance and audacity... They realize what the comparable late 1920s ink drawings did not: decorative assimilation of the figure into the decorated unity of the sheet... Now the drawing itself is a lattice work, an all-over patterned fabric" (ibid., pp. 113 and 114).
When Pierre Matisse first viewed Nu rose, he told his father, "It's the one in which you've renewed yourself, it's a sequel to the great decorations" (quoted in H. Spurling, op. cit., p. 360). Compared to the lavish odalisques of the 1920s, Nu rose is an austere and laconic statement that defines the very essence of the art of painting in its most modern aspect. The subsequent Nu couché drawings likewise represented the art of drawing in its purest state. These efforts together contributed to a new conciseness of means which is evident in the present portrait of Lydia. The forms in the sitter's figure are absolutely flat, with the suggestion of depth created purely by zoned color contrasts. As if to emphasize the drawn aspect of these shapes, Matisse has outlined the dark areas of Lydia's sleeves and stole by scraping away a thin thread of pigment with the wooden end of his brush or the tip of a palette knife. Elsewhere he has marked the contours with lines in black paint.
The flatness of these forms, and half-length format of this portrait, and even the tonality Matisse chose for it may have been suggested by the artist's long-standing interest in Russian icons, rekindled of late by the presence of his new Russian model, who came to embody for him l'âme slave. In 1911, the year before his first trip to Morocco, Matisse visited his Russian patron Sergei Shchukin in Moscow. He was taken to meet Ilya Ostroukhov, who had one of the largest and finest collections of Russian icons in the world. Ostroukhov acted as the artist's guide on a tour of cathedrals in Moscow, and they also visited the Novodevichii convent, the Rogozhski cemetery, the Edinoverchek monastery, and listened to old Russian chant in the Synodal College. Matisse had written home to his wife, "I think this journey is going to be enormously important for me" (quoted in H. Spurling, op. cit., p. 93). Jack Flam has pointed out that "Matisse was impressed and moved by the brilliant colors and spiritual force of the icons. 'They are really great art,' he told an interviewer. 'I am in love with their moving simplicity which, to me, is closer and dearer than Fra Angelico. In these icons the soul of the artist who painted them opens out like a mystical flower. And from them we ought to learn how to understand art'" (in Matisse: The Man and His Art, 1869-1918, Ithaca, New York, 1986, p. 323).
Matisse, in fact, did not have to travel far to see firsthand once again a trove of Russian icons: the walls of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint-Nicolas in Nice, completed and furnished by Tsar Nicholas II in 1912, were adorned throughout with exquisite examples of these devotional images (fig. 7). The last Tsar had intended that his cathedral serve the community of well-to-do Russians who liked to spend their winters on the Côte d'Azur, and following the October Revolution, it became the locus for a sizable colony of Russians who had been dispossessed, dislocated or coerced into exile by conditions in their homeland, with Lydia among them.
The richly saturated colors in Lydia's portrait are perhaps a nod back in the direction of Cézanne (Rewald, no. 655; fig. 8)--a small painting of bathers by Cézanne was one of Matisse's most cherished possessions--and especially Gauguin, whose expressive use of color had strongly influenced Matisse's Fauve movement in 1905, and whose fabled example had also inspired the artist's recent trip to Tahiti. Matisse may have had in mind Gauguin's painting Faaturuma ("Melancholic" or "Reverie"), a portrait of a native girl in European dress that the artist painted in 1891, during the early months of his first stay in Tahiti (Wildenstein, no. 424; fig. 9). Patricia Hampl has written, "'When color is at its richest,' Cézanne said, 'form is at its fullest.' And where to find this saturation, this richness? Good counsel came from Gauguin: 'O painters who are looking for a color technique, study rugs. You will find all the necessary knowledge there.' Not just any rugs: Always have the Persians in mind,' he added" (in Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime, New York, 2006, p. 73).
Revisiting the sources of his modernism had been reinvigorating for Matisse at this stage in his career. Nevertheless, the most compelling catalyst in his reconsidered approach to flatness and the successful integration of figure and ground was in fact his gentlemanly rivalry with Picasso, now going back almost three decades, which had heated up once again as Matisse was working on the Barnes mural. Matisse had his definitive mid-career Paris retrospective at Galeries Georges Petit during the summer of 1931; exactly one year later, at the same venue, Picasso likewise exhibited a large number of works, more comprehensive and representative in scope, which managed to attract greater attention in the press and among critics. Picasso included a recently painted series of seated and reclining women, captured while they slept or indulged in daydreaming (fig. 10), rendered in vibrantly sensuous color and set in decorated interiors, by which he appeared to openly challenge Matisse on the latter's own territory, at a time when Matisse had been largely inactive as an easel painter. Mme Monod-Fontaine has observed:
"It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Picasso then took it upon himself to paint for two, for himself and his main rival, which would help explain the 'Matissean part' explicit in this moving and magnificent series (which Picasso of course chose to expose in its entirety at the Galeries Georges Petit in June 1932--who can affirm that Picasso did not paint the series with a view to this exhibition?) The reply from Matisse to what must have appeared a message as well as a challenge would not take place before 1935, with the paintings of his new model, the blonde Lydia Delectorskaya, in turn playing the role of 'sleeping beauty'" (in Matisse Picasso, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2003, pp. 248-249).
Almost all of the Picasso's seated or sleeping women were based on his youthful blonde mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. In mapping out the roughly symmetrical point-counterpoint that so often characterized the great Matisse-Picasso rivalry, we see that Matisse now had in Lydia his own blonde, his own Marie-Thérèse, although their relationship was purely professional and, to the end, entirely chaste. Lydia was two years younger than Marie-Thérèse. Picasso had used the image of his beloved to create a universalized, archetypal female presence, transported through dreaming into a subconscious state, an idea that took its cue from Surrealist concerns. Matisse, on the other hand, literally employed Lydia--conscientiously and fully compensating her for services rendered as a model and assistant--to act the part of a typically fashionable and most realistic modern young woman, recognizably dressed in the latest style of the day. While the elements in Picasso's depictions of his interior settings and their decor may suggest a degree of site specificity, there is little in Marie-Thérèse's wardrobe--when she does not appear disrobed--to indicate actual aspects of contemporary fashion, beyond purely generic and probably self-invented representations of it. The view of the feminine mystique that each artist expresses in his work emerged from dissimilar approaches, and stand in contrast to each other, but as such are entirely complementary.
Everything in Matisse's background fostered his sensitivity to decoration, fashion and style. His mother was a milliner, and his wife had taken up hat-making as well; Matisse loved to fashion his own hats for his models. Hilary Spurling has written, "Matisse's ancestors had been weavers for generations. Textiles were in his blood. He could not live without them... Matisse's fabric collection served him as a combined archive and tool-store all his life. He called it 'my working library'...constantly replenishing the collection from oriental carpet shops and clothes stores, radically extending it at intervals in the bazaars, souks, and market stalls of Algeria, Morocco and Tahiti, or the end-of-season sales of Parisian haute couture" (in Matisse: His Art and his Textiles, exh. cat., The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, pp. 15 and 16). Matisse could design a costume for a Diaghilev ballet and cut it from cloth himself. His facility with a pair of scissors and a bolt of material would culminate in the great paper cut-outs of his final period; by the time he executed the present portrait, he was already using cut and pinned papers, a designer's practice, to plot the contours in his paintings. While textiles, fabrics and exotic and elegant clothing became in his hands the stuff of invention and even fantasy, they remained his grounding in reality, and served to sustain and inspire him as a modern painter of modern life.
Matisse conceived the present portrait of Lydia in a series of five charcoal drawings that he began on 20 November 1935, in which he depicted his subject seated in a chair (fig. 11). He experimented with various poses; two were three-quarter length (as in the aforementioned paintings by Cézanne and Gauguin), and in some studies Lydia's head is turned slightly to one side. In the end he opted for a half-length frontal pose, emphasizing the icon-like verticality of the flattened forms, with Lydia tilting her head slightly as she looks toward the viewer, but not quite straight-in-the-eye, in a most coy and fetching manner. The final drawing in the sequence is dated 8 December. Lydia recorded that Matisse began her portrait painting on 11 December, and completed it on the 16th. His final step may have been to scratch the contour lines into the wet paint, a masterly stroke that with extraordinary economy effectively heightened the design of the composition, before he likewise inscribed his signature and date in the lower left corner.
The present painting is Matisse's first important portrait of Lydia. Others would follow, in which she posed in a variety of elegant dresses (fig. 12), and, of course, in the costume of an odalisque as well. John Klein has observed:
"More works depicting Lydia seem to aspire to portraiture than those of any other model, and she herself seems to approach more nearly the condition of social equivalence to the artist than any other of his models ever did... And yet Matisse's insistence that he always pay her to model is striking, and its significance should not be underestimated. Given their close and long-standing relationship, it seems that Matisse paid Delectorskaya not only from a sense of charity or even fairness (though she considered it an equitable arrangement) but also as a point of control, and possibly a means of distancing, not focusing, his emotions. He needed to comprehend this woman pictorially, and the mechanism of economic transaction could temporarily supersede the social transaction that characterized their normal relations. It is reasonable to suppose that Matisse understood the implication of not paying Lydia Delectorskaya to model, and did pay her in order to have complete freedom in his art, unfettered by a need to affirm his sitter's individuality and integrity in that site where professional modeling served his needs more effectively" (op. cit., 243).
This professional relationship between the artist and his subject, which Matisse so meticulously observed, actually defines the balanced temper and refined sensibility that constitute the very foundation of his art. For Picasso, especially in his final years, the artist and model relationship came to signify that painting and sex were essentially the same thing, and this became the wondrously impassioned cry of love in his late paintings. The sensuality and joie de vivre in Matisse's painting are rarely anywhere as emotionally blatant, all-consuming or overtly erotic. Matisse possessed the coolly discreet temperament of a Northerner, and the distance he placed between his subject and himself, while it made for less sensationalistic biography, helped him to fully realize his talents and skills as a painter and make him a great artist. Matisse wrote in his "Notes of a Painter on his Drawing," which was published in 1939: "My models, human figures, are never just 'extras' in an interior. They are the principal theme of my work... The emotional interest they inspire in me is not particularly apparent in the representation of their bodies, but often rather by the lines and or the special values distributed over the whole canvas or paper, which form its orchestration, its architecture" (quoted in J. Flam, ed., op. cit., pp. 131 and 132).
[unnumbered artist fig.] Henri Matisse, 1935, photographed by Lydia Delectorskaya. BARCODE 26015538
(fig. 1) Lydia Delectorskaya, photograph by Henri Matisse. BARCODE 26007564
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Odalisque, harmonie bleue, 1937. Sold, Christie's New York, 6 November 2007, lot 24. BARCODE 25758498
(fig. 3) Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart in John Huston's film The Maltese Falcon, 1941. BARCODE 26015491
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, Les yeux bleus, February-March 1935. The Cone Collection, The Baltimore Museum of Art. BARCODE 26015545
(fig. 5) Henri Matisse, Grand nu couché (Nu rose), April-October 1935. The Cone Collection, The Baltimore Museum of Art. BARCODE
(fig. 6) Henri Matisse, Nu dans l'atelier, Nice, late 1935. Sold, Christie's New York, 3 November 2004, lot 7. BARCODE 23154582
(fig. 7) La cathédrale russe Saint-Nicolas, Nice. BARCODE 25013061
(fig. 8) Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne au fauteuil jaune, 1888-1889. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 26015514
(fig. 9) Paul Gauguin, Faaturuma, Tahiti, 1891. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. BARCODE 26015521
(fig. 10) Pablo Picasso, Le rêve, 1932. Sold, Christie's New York, 10 November 1997, lot 43.
(fig. 11) Henri Matisse, Lydia (Etude pour 'Portrait au manteau bleu'), 20 November 1935. Sold, Christie's New York, 30 April 1996, lot 49. BARCODE 26015507
(fig. 12) Henri Matisse, Le grande robe bleue et mimosas, February-April 1937. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE 26015552